Monday, November 14, 2011

The Vilett House


In the mid 19th century Cricklade Street was still referred to by its older name of Brock Hill. Once so steep extra horses were added to carts and carriages to pull heavy loads up to Old Swindon

The magnificent 18th century town house on the east side of Cricklade Street, known locally as the Vilett House, is today the focal point of a new housing development by Ward Homes.

Built about 1729 and once the home of Old Swindon aristocracy Thomas Vilett and his wife, the former Mary Goddard, it is thought the first occupier was local landowner William Harding. In 1770 another member of the family, wealthy Robert Harding was living there.

A memorial in the old parish church of Holy Rood records that Robert was the husband of Mary, daughter of John Tubb, formerly of Goosey in Berkshire, Armiger (a person entitled to bear heraldic arms). Mary died in 1759 and when Robert made his will in 1770 he was 'under a Treaty of Marriage' to Miss Philippa Hughes.

Built on the site of a former inn, there is an elaborate system of brick vaulted cellars beneath the house at number 42. Not coal cellars or even wine cellars, but an intriguing network of passages once believed to run to other parts of the town.

William Morris, founder of the Swindon Advertiser, was convinced these cellars were used for smuggling, dating back to the time of Harding's occupancy or possibly before.

Smuggling is usually associated with coastal communities but Morris tells how even in the late 18th century there were villages in the North Wiltshire downs 'not very far distant from Swindon' where smuggling provided a steady source of income.

Tales of Swindon's smuggling past abound and Morris writes that the town and neighbourhood were once 'the very home and stronghold of a band of smugglers ... called Moonrakers.'

The legend of the Moonrakers tells how a group of simple country folk were one night observed by an excise man trying to rake the shadow of the moon out of a brook. When questioned they told him they had believed it to be a round of cheese. However, a lot less simple then they appeared, they were actually fishing up some kegs of concealed spirits, the story was just for the benefit of the excise man.

When Robert Harding died in November 1770, he left a tidy little nest egg including a Gold Watch and Jewels, and £100 (worth today over £10,600) to hs grieving fiancee - all legally acquired and above board, presumably!

By the 1840s the building had become a commercial enterprise, the offices of solicitors Crowdy, Townsend and Ormond. In 1950 John Betjeman described 42 Cricklade Street as 'one of the most distinguished town houses in Wiltshire.'

Townsend's long occupancy continued through to the beginning of the 21st century but by 2005 the Vilett House was boarded up and in a sorry state.

Today, central to Swindon Borough Council's Old Town Conservation area, the Vilett House has been sensitively restored and converted into apartments. Features preserved in the modern conversion of the Grade II* listed property include the grotesque masks in the window keystones, steps up to the Corinthian door case and bow windows on the side added around 1800.













Images of grotesques courtesy of Brian Robert Marshall

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